Monday, June 27, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - Infinite Jest, Pages 64-95

Our second section of reading gets into some meaty bits, including James Incandenza's extensive filmography, Kate Gompert's depression, some beautiful thoughts on tennis from Gerhardt Schtitt, the introduction of Remy Marathe and Hugh Steeply, and Endnote 304 (which features background on the AFR).

First off, I'll admit that JOI's filmography (eight-plus pages of very small print; "as complete as we are able to make it") is more interesting after you have read Infinite Jest, as several films depict events/scenes from the book. For example, "It Was A Great Marvel That He Was In The Father Without Knowing Him" (992-993) sounds identical to young Hal's visit to the "professional conversationalist": "A father, suffering from the delusion that his etymologically precocious son is pretending to be mute, poses as a 'professional conversationalist' in order to draw the boy out." Note that Cosgrove Watt (mentioned by Hal as he waits for the ambulance in the opening section of the book) plays the father. "Insubstantial Country" (992) concerns "an unpopular apres-garde filmmaker" who becomes mute or else is the victim of everyone's delusion that he is mute.

We also have mentions of spiders, desert settings, Near Eastern medical attaches, a headmaster of a tennis academy, veils, lethal beauty, disfiguration, cages, various types of pain, drug addictions, problems of communication, and someone (in "Low-Temperature Civics") having "an ecstatic encounter with Death and becom[ing] irreversibly catatonic". For a long time, I thought that many "clues" to the book's mysteries were "hidden" in the filmography. I'm not sure about that now. (Undoubtedly, you are supposed to think there are clues a-plenty in there, though. You are supposed to think that just about everything in the entire book could be a clue ...)

We learn that "B.S." means "Before Subsidization", before the US stopped using numbers for years and sold off the naming rights. The names of JOI's studios are all suggestive: Meniscus, Latrodectus Mactans, Poor Yorick.

Considering how detailed and vivid the depictions of depression and addiction are in Infinite Jest, it is reasonable to wonder how much of his own life David Foster Wallace incorporated into the novel.

Compare what Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest ...
She said he lived in a trailer and had a harelip and kept snakes and had no phone, and was basically just not what you'd call a pleasant or attractive person at all, but the guy in Allston frequently sold dope to theater people in Cambridge, and had a devoted following. ... just off the Allston Spur in a tiny housetrailer with another frightening couple and with Tommy Doocey, the infamous harelipped pot-and-sundries dealer who kept several large snakes in unclean, uncovered aquaria, which smelled, which Tommy Doocey didn't notice because his upperlip completely covered his nostrils and all he could smell was lip. (18, 39)
With what Mary Karr wrote in her 1995 memoir, The Liar's Club:
I knew a drug dealer once who collected [snakes] in glass tanks all over his trailer. He had a harelip that somehow protected him from the stink, but the rest of us became, when dickering over pharmaceuticals with him, the noisiest and most adenoidal mouth breathers. We all sounded like Elmer Fudd, so a coke deal took on a cartoonlike quality: "You weally tink dis is uncut?"
Wallace and Karr knew each other while they were in treatment in Boston. D.T. Max writes about their relationship in his biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story.

He was in rehab and we'd met through friends; he was in rehab down the street and I lived in Belmont, Mass., which is where McLean [Hospital] is. ... So we ran into each other a lot. He was in a halfway house where I did volunteer work. ... [W]e had a lot of mutual friends, many of whom ended up in Infinite Jest in a way I thought was ... I really thought was unkind.
Back in mid-1999, when members of Salon's discussion board Table Talk were discussing Infinite Jest, someone posted this (shades of Erdedy):
Not to be an incipient rumor-monger, but hey, what the hell -- Some friends of mine lived in the apartment directly underneath DFW while he was researching and drafting IJ. The story I got was that he was completely neurotic at the time, esp. re: prescription psychiatric drugs (surprise, surprise) and pot, but he had these really strange privacy and secrecy issues, and was hiding from his roommate the fact that he smoked as much pot as he did, so he used to plague my friend C. with endless requests to use C.'s apartment downstairs when C. and girlfriend were away... C. is himself among the most paranoid-neurotic souls the race has ever progenerated, and got sick of what he saw as increasing impositions on DFW's apartment, and ultimately refused DFW's request on the eve of his (C.'s) leaving for vacation. When he got home he found (this is all, of course, hearsay) that DFW had broken into his apartment, had made himself Quite At Home for a few days, had smoked (by the evidence left in ashtrays) the Kind Bud in amounts and a manner more than merely suggestive of the opening of IJ, had presumably in a fit of munchies eaten most of the food in C.-and-girlfriend's larder, and left -- without bothering to lock up.
Kate Gompert's description of her depression - every cell in her body being "sick to its stomach" (which seems to overwhelm her about two weeks after she stops smoking pot) - is nearly identical to a description in a (presumably somewhat autobiographical (although it is always tricky to assume autobiography in a writer's fiction)) short story Wallace published in The Amherst Review back in 1984 ("The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Bad Thing."):
... I'll tell what I think the Bad Thing is like. To me it's like being completely, totally, utterly sick. I will try to explain what I mean. Imagine feeling really sick to your stomach. Almost everyone has felt really sick to his or her stomach, so everyone knows what it's like: it's less than fun. OK. OK. But that feeling is localized: it's more or less just your stomach. Imagine your whole body being sick like that: your feet, the big muscles in your legs, your collarbone, your head, your hair, everything, all just as sick as a fluey stomach. Then, if you can imagine that, please imagine it even more spread out and total. Imagine that every cell in your body, every single cell in your body is as sick as that nauseated stomach. Not just your own cells, even, but the e. coli and lactobacilli in you, too, the mitochondria, basal bodies, all sick and boiling and hot like maggots in your neck, your brain, all over, everywhere, in everything. All just sick as hell. Now imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick like that, sick, intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom . . . swollen and throbbing, off·color, sick, with just no chance of throwing up to relieve the feeling. Every electron is sick, here, twirling off balance and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases, everything off balance and woozy. Quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place, bouncing like crazy. Just imagine that, a sickness spread utterly through every bit of you, even the bits of the bits. So that your very . . . very essence is characterized by nothing other than the feature of sickness; you and the sickness are, as they say, "one." ...

And just the way when you're sick to your stomach you're kind of scared way down deep that it might maybe never go away, the Bad Thing scares you the same way, only worse, because the fear is itself filtered through the bad disease and becomes bigger and worse and hungrier than it started out. It tears you open and gets in there and squirms around.
Also, a definition of "depression":

I had previously sort of always thought that depression was just sort of really intense sadness, like what you feel when your very good dog dies, or when Bambi's mother gets killed in Bambi. I thought that it was that you frowned or maybe even cried a little bit if you were a girl and said "Holy cow, I'm really depressed, here," and then your friends if you have any come and cheer you up or take you out and get you ploughed and in the morning it's like a faded color and in a couple days it's gone altogether.
When people call it that [depression] I always get pissed off because I always think depression sounds like you just get like really sad, you get quiet and melancholy and just like sit quietly by the window sighing or just lying around. A state of not caring about anything A kind of blue kind of peaceful state.
(IYI (If You're Interested): There was a tennis player named Kate Gompert on the midwest junior circuit at roughly the same time Wallace was playing as a teenager. (She was apparently one of 16 remaining women players at the 1985 US Open.) She read Infinite Jest when it was published and was not pleased to see a drug-abusing, suicidal character with her name. There was at least the beginnings of a court action for libel, but it never got very far.)

Gerhardt Schtitt, roughly 70 years old, is the Head Coach and Athletic Director at ETA, now more of an elder statesmen than a fascist disciplinarian. Schtitt hangs out with Mario Incandenza a lot, Mario - a "born listener" - is pretty much the only person Schitt speaks candidly to. Schtitt was brought to ETA by JOI because "Schtitt approached competitive tennis more like a pure mathematician than a technician".

Schtitt knew
that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. Seemed intuitively to sense that it was a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely — of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, n2 possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.
At the bottom of page 83, tennis referred to as "chess on the run", an expression DFW also used in one of his essays. We also have a issue with who is narrating this section. As the conversation between Schtitt and Mario is described, we get this: "This should not be rendered in exposition like this, but Mario Incandenza has a severely limited range of verbatim recall." Also, from the narrator:
The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net's other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis's beauty's infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.
Re Remy and Marathe: I am determined this time around to fully understand (to the extent the book allows me to) the intricacies of the political intrigue subplot. Marathe is a member of Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (poor/wrong translation of "Wheelchair Assassins") while Steeply (dressed as a woman) is an agent of the United States Office of Unspecified Services. The two spies meet on a rocky outcropping overlooking Tucson, Arizona. They discuss the incident with the medical attache, which was roughly four weeks earlier. Steeply wants to know if the AFR mailed a copy of what he calls "the Entertainment" to the attache. It turns out nearly 20 people viewed the cartridge and are "out of commission forever". Marathe says the AFR did not. We learn there are "possible indications" that Avril Incandenza had an affair with the medical attache years ago. They also mention the death of DuPlessis, who was killed accidentally by Don Gately and Trent Kite. Marathe is working as either a double-, triple- or quadruple-agent. His boss, M. Fortier, thinks Marthe is only pretending to betray the AFR, but Marathe is apparently pretending to pretend, thus collaborating with USOUS to secure medical services for his wife. They discuss Rod "the God" Tine, the Chief of USOUS, and his love for Luria Peric, the one-time stenographer for DuPlessis. There is also the question of whether Tine is a double agent.

On page 89, there is a reference to Note 39. And on page 994, Note 39 has two footnotes. The second footnote states: "See Note 304 sub." And so, beginning on page 1055, we get a very long entry detailing James Albrecht Lockley Struck Jr.'s attempts to plagiarize a monograph by G.T. Day on the AFR. Day's writing is "diarrheatic", "the kind of foam-flecked megalograndiosity [Struck] associates with Quaaludes and red wine and then the odd Preludin to pull out of the grandiose nosedive of the Quaaludes and red wine". But we do learn a lot about the AFR, including its initiation game, "Le Jeu du Prochain Train", which involves being the last person to leap across railroad tracks as a train is speeding past. Many leapers do not survive; others are in wheelchairs.

Maybe two-thirds of the way through the endnote, we get an out-of-the-blue reference to "Inc" - Hal Incandenza, who is mentioned a couple of pages later.
What's interesting to Hal Incandenza about his take on Struck, sometimes Pemulis, Evan Ingersoll, et al. is that congenital plagiarists put so much more work into camouflaging their plagiarism than it would take just to write up an assignment from conceptual scratch. It usually seems like plagiarists aren't lazy so much as kind of navigationally insecure. They have trouble navigating without a detailed map's assurance that somebody has been this way before them. About this incredible painstaking care to hide and camouflage the plagiarism — whether it's dishonesty or a kind of kleptomaniacal thrill-seeking or what — Hal hasn't developed much of any sort of take.
And: Note 304 has six footnotes and two endnotes of its own! Thankfully, none of them lead anywhere else in the book.

And, finally, we get a look at Tiny Ewell, being transported by taxi from St. Mel's Hospital's detoxification unit to the Enfield Marine VA Hospital Complex. I'm not sure what St. Mel's is; it is not mentioned in any other section of the book and there is no web info on it as a real place. Ewell's roommate at St. Mel's is entranced by watching the room's air conditioner:
The air conditioner hums and gushes, and the man gazes with rapt intensity into its screen of horizontal vents. ... The man's face falls into and out of amused expressions as he watches the air conditioner. ... He is deeply engaged by whatever he sees on [setting] 9. ... He has been watching the air conditioner all day. His face produces the little smiles and grimaces of a person who's being thoroughly entertained.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - Infinite Jest, Pages 3-63

... and we have begun!

My first thought is that trying to read this massive novel - and have substantive discussions (be sure to check the Poor Yoricks' Summer website and the Reddit threads) - in only three months is a bit insane. Nevertheless ...

In the first 60 pages of Infinite Jest, we are introduced to a lot of characters and situations set in a variety of years (which are, confusingly enough, sponsored by corporations, i.e., "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" and "Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad", so the reader has no idea in what order the years go). These sections are often packed with information - and Wallace will bury some bit of what seems like tangential information in a page-long paragraph that might be key to something 300 pages later. (Also, do not ignore the endnotes. They contain important and essential information.) For this reason, don't worry if you don't understand what is going on or who these people are or when in time certain events are happening. Everything will be made (reasonably) clear in time.

The book opens with Hal Incandenza, 18-year-old student at the Enfield Tennis Academy, interviewing at the University of Arizona in November, "Year of Glad". He is making great efforts to appear neutral and at ease, though his "heart bumps like a dryer with shoes in it". He is articulate and observant in his narration, but when he does finally speak, the university administrators react as though something quite different, more horrifying, is happening. Hal seems aware of this disconnect between his thoughts and how he is expressing himself (or how his expressions appear to others). We have no idea why, however. Hal says: "Call it something I ate."

In a flashback, we learn that Hal ate some mold as a young child. Hal says he doesn't remember this incident ("It's funny what you don't recall"); the details come from Orin (his older brother). While his mother and Orin were gardening, young Hal came out of the house holding a large patch of mold - Orin posits it came from the home's basement - dark green, glossy, vaguely hirsute, speckled with parasitic fungal points of yellow, orange, red. Worse, some of the mold was smeared around Hal's mouth. Is there a connection between Hal's comment at the university and this mold-eating incident? Following one episode with the next makes a reader think so. But how could Hal eating a bit of mold at age five affect him so drastically 13 years later?

Then we are back at the U of Arizona, where Hal is subdued and taken to the men's room while an ambulance is called. Hal recalls various people and events. These pages (16-17) are rich in cryptic details. Then there is perhaps the most famous sentence in the book: "I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year's Whataburger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head."

We know that Hal was playing in this same tennis tournament, the Whataburger Southwest Junior Invitational. He had won a quarterfinal match on the morning of his "attack" and was scheduled to play a semifinal match the next day, probably against the blind Dymphna. Whatever problems he may have had in the university's offices, he is still playing top-notch tennis. (Hal mentions having been in an emergency room almost exactly one year ago, apparently carried in on a stretcher.)

Among the many Hamlet references in the novel:
"I'd tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear." (9) and "I could, if you'd let me, talk and talk." (12)

"Had I but time ... O, I could tell you—" (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2)
A marijuana addict named Erdedy awaits a delivery of a massive amount of pot. He has tried 70-80 times to quit in the past, and this time he plans to smoke so much pot in such a short amount of time, he will be thoroughly disgusted and never want to smoke again.

"He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he'd never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He'd cure himself by excess." (22)

But the woman who said she would come is late and Erdedy's getting anxious. We are taken through the twists and turns of Erdedy's mind, a stream-of-consciousness flow of information, of decision and indecision. Once the pot arrives, Erdedy plans to "shut the whole system down" and has gone to great lengths to prepare for this last final debauch. In a situation seemingly out of his control, Erdedy has convinced himself that giving in to his addiction can be turned into a sign of discipline and persistence and will.

(Wallace published this section as a short story four years before the novel appeared, in Grand Street as "Three Protrusions". There were minor differences: i.e., Erdedy was unnamed and the price of pot was much lower ($550 versus IJ's $1250).)

We then switch back to Hal at the age of 10, and his appointment with a "professional conversationalist", who may or may not be his father in disguise. The conversationalist notes that Hal's father believes that Hal does not speak or communicate - "Is Himself still having this hallucination I never speak?" - yet Hal seems to converse just fine in the scene. (Hal's age tells us that the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad is well before the Year of Glad.) Hal's father "some days presents with delusions about people's mouths moving but nothing coming out."

Back in April YDAU, a medical attaché (in Boston) has come home to relax, have dinner, and watch some "entertainment". His wife is out playing tennis with her friends. The attaché goes through his mail and decides (out of curiosity more than anything) to watch "a standard black entertainment cartridge" which arrived in "a plain brown and irritatingly untitled cartridge-case in a featureless white three-day standard U.S.A. First Class padded cartridge-mailer ... postmarked suburban Phoenix." The cartridge is "wholly unlabeled [and] has only another of these vapid U.S.A.-type circular smiling heads embossed upon it." The return address says simply, "Happy Anniversary!"

Some connections to the other sections we've read: The attaché travels between Boston, Mass. and Phoenix, Arizona, the two hubs of InterLace TelEntertainment; the cartridge was mailed to Boston from Phoenix; Hal lives near Boston and might attend college in Arizona; we will learn later that Orin lives in Phoenix.

Bruce Green and Mildred L. Bonk (a "fatally pretty [and] wraithlike figure") met in high school and are now married with a baby. She gets high at home and he works at Leisure Time Ice. They live in a trailer with another couple and a drug dealer who keeps snakes (this is most likely the same drug dealer mentioned in the Erdedy section).

In the Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar, a girl named Clenette tells us about Wardine and Wardine's abusive family. Wardine is being sexually harassed by her mother's boyfriend, Roy Tony. Wardine's mother also beats her. Four years previous, Roy Tony killed Clenette's mother. A boy named Reginald wants to confront Roy Tony and/or Wardine's mother about the abuse.

Many people do not like this short section. It's narrated in a type of fractured ghetto-speech (or a very poor attempt at ghetto-speech). "Wardine be like to die of scared. She say no to Reginald beg." It is not quite as bad reading it through for the second or third time as it is when you first encounter it. Many readers have wondered how someone as astute and intelligent as Wallace could have such a tin ear when it comes to Clenette's speech. Obviously, Wallace was not that dumb. And in a book that has a lot to do with communication and has already laid out two instances of Hal seemingly unable to make himself understood, there may be a reason for this.

Back in YDAU (May 9), Hal gets a very early morning (and somewhat cryptic) phone call from his brother Orin. The first part of their conversation are the lyrics to the Beatles' "I Want To Tell You". Then the phone connection is cut. In the Wikipedia entry for the song, George Harrison says the lyrics are "about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit". This is cool, because Wallace was trying to produce the feel of that flood of thoughts in this book. From his short story "Good Old Neon" (included in Oblivion):
[I]t could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents on one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc. ... What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.
Hal and Mario talk about belief in God, their father's death, and grief. Even though their mother seems more happier and alive after Himself's death, Hal thinks she was probably quite sad. "She just got sad in her way instead of yours and mine." Hal also tells Mario there are two ways to lower a flag to half-mast. One is to lower the flag. The other is to raise the pole twice as high. ... Meanwhile, the medical attaché continues watching the cartridge.

We then meet Orin Incandenza, a professional football player, at home in Phoenix. We learn about his dread in the mornings and his fear of insects. Orin also fears an upcoming interview.
"And out of nowhere a bird had all of a sudden fallen into the Jacuzzi." (44)

"There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2)

"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:29-31)
The other two big sections:

Hal gets secretly high in ETA's Pump Room. He "likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he's as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high". (Hiding, secrecy, and masks are some of the recurring themes of the book.) Hal's mother, Avril, has "a black phobic dread of hiding or secrecy in all possible forms" and she is more than a little worried that Hal is using drugs/alcohol, in light of his father's addictions.

The narrator talks about people devoting themselves to a cause, such as the young students at the tennis academy:
Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. ...

Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency. (53-54)
This theme ties in with Wallace's 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech ("This Is Water") in which he stresses the importance of choosing what we pay attention to.

Don Gately, an oral narcotics addict and "a more or less professional burglar ... the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head", accidentally kills Guillaume DuPlessis (a "meek-looking Canadian-terrorism-coordinator") while robbing his Brookline, Massachusetts, home. Because this burglary resulted in a death, it comes under greater scrutiny and a certain "remorseless Revere A.D.A." sees evidence of Gately's signature M.O. re killing power to the house - and is quietly biding his time. Gately doesn't know it yet, but he is "in the sort of a hell of a deep-shit mess than can turn a man's life right around". Endnotes 13 and 16 are perfect examples of a reader getting "extra" info outside the main text, as we learn that Gately's associate in this break-in was Trent "Quo Vadis" Kite.

Finally, the colour blue is mentioned many times in this week's reading and throughout the novel and I would have guessed that blue was the most common colour mentioned in the book, but, apparently, it's not. Corrie Baldauf has gone through Infinite Jest several times, marking each instance of colour with a similarly-coloured tab. You can listen to an interview with her on The Great Concavity, a podcast devoted to all things Wallace. Also, Baldauf contributed a guest post ("How To Read Infinite Jest") to the PYS project.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - IJ Group Read: Introduction

David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest was published in February 1996. Part of the book's huge hype (and for me, its initial allure) was its sheer size - a brick of nearly 1,100 pages (cut down from an alleged 1,700!), including 388 small-fonted endnotes. I borrowed it from the library, but my brain balked at its dense prose and confusing storylines. I gave up after 100 or so pages.

But I returned about a year later. I bought the paperback and dove back in. At about the 200-page mark, several plot lines intersected, something clicked, and I was off! (Breaking through at roughly that page-point is a common experience, it seems.) I was (and remain), appropriately enough, addicted to the novel, since one of its central themes is addiction - in many forms - and recovery. Most the action takes place in suburban Boston, at either the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House or the Enfield Tennis Academy. The book's wikipedia page has descriptions of the main characters and is a pretty good overview to the whole thing, though it contains spoilers.

Time praised Infinite Jest for its "endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis".

A reader also gets copious amounts of information/minutiae on prescription drugs, jailhouse tattoos, avant-garde film theory, and Quebec separatism, as well as lengthy internal monologues and frighteningly accurate descriptions of panic attacks, crippling depression, suicidal thoughts, and blindly feeling your way through sobriety. There is also the international search for a film cartridge that is reportedly so entertaining that unsuspecting viewers lose their will to do anything else and are content to watch the film over and over and over (not sleeping, eating, etc.) until they die.

So what is it about Infinite Jest?

Language and Tone: Infinite Jest is packed with dense, often analytical, prose. One reviewer described it as "a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits ... juxtapos[ing], often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, highly esoteric words". You will read words that you will most likely never see anywhere else. Wallace delivers all of this in a conversational voice filled with deep insight, empathy, and a jaw-droppingly precise use of language.

Wallace once spoke about his use of compound-conjunctions (sentences starting with some variation of "And but so ..." that, while actually used sparingly in the novel, became a kind of trademark):
When somebody's talking and they get on a roll, and they start talking faster and faster - and they don't breathe - one of the things they'll do is have compound-conjunctions because you're really - you're wanting that sentence to serve a number of things. It's both a contrast and a continuation, and it's an extrapolation. And it's a little unconscious clue to the reader that he's more listening than reading now - that we're at a pace now that's supposed to be far more sound and pace and breath than it is these short contained sentences. ... Infinite Jest is the first thing that I wrote where the narrator - it's supposed to sound like the narrator's talking to you.
Narrative Intricacies: Infinite Jest could also be described as a mystery. Because of the abrupt ending of the physical book and the gaps and loops of the narrative's chronology, the reader is left with many questions. This is by design. Readers often go right back to the beginning and start over - not unlike the soon-to-be doomed viewers of that notorious film. And Wallace has a remarkable habit of burying possible clues in page-long paragraphs.

Humanity of the Characters: Although Wallace gets lumped in with other lesser writers who use irony as a way of keeping an emotional distance from their audience and avoiding showing any vulnerability which might expose them to pointed-finger ridicule, Infinite Jest's characters and their thoughts are often heartbreakingly naked and raw. Wallace explores using the crutch of irony in an essay on Dostoevsky (a writer he clearly admired and (I think) wished to emulate) included in his essay collection, Consider The Lobster.

For years, I felt that there was no possible way Wallace could have written Infinite Jest without having gone through some horrifying personal experiences with depression, drugs, addiction, and the wrestling match of recovery. When asked, he would claim he merely sat in on many open-to-the-public AA meetings in Boston and got to know and talk with many of the people in attendance. Information made public since Wallace's death in 2008 - most notably, D.T. Max's biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story - has revealed that he was a recovering addict and suffered from depression for decades (and attempted suicide several times).

However, there were some clues published shortly after Infinite Jest was published. Wallace told Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune that in the late 80s/early 90s, after the success of his first novel and a short-story collection, he admitted himself to a hospital and asked to be put on suicide watch. Another article mentioned Wallace "being treated for a drug problem he developed in the wake of his early novelistic successes" and then becoming "compelled by the paradox of the AA 12-step program, which requires utter submission to a higher power in order to give up just such a submission to addiction." Wallace is also the anonymous author of this letter of appreciation to the people at Granada House in Allston, Mass. (the inspiration for Ennet House).

Pretty much the first review of Infinite Jest - or at least the first major review - was from Sven Birkerts in The Atlantic. He writes that Wallace:
has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or - and - the incandescence of the writing. ...

To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace's narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. ... [Infinite Jest works] as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.
Colby Cosh (National Post (Canada), September 16, 2008):
It was in 1996 that Wallace arrived; I never saw anything quite like it before, and I do not expect to again. For some years there had already been murmurs and hints about the arrival of a massive new contender for Great American Novel, or at least Decade-Defining Doorstop; a huge, Pynchonesque, unsummarizable, labyrinthine, comic-tragic-ironic book about tennis and addiction that some math geek from Illinois had been brazen enough to call "Infinite Jest." Books columnists talked about it like Ahab murmuring about the whale; one couldn't help but be curious.
Michiko Kakutani (New York Times, February 13, 1996) wrote that Wallace was:
a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who's equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who's also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes.
Ted Gioia (Blog Critics, September 14, 2008):
[IJ] is a big novel by any definition. Yet the creativity and energy of Wallace's vision never lag. Few writers have ever been better at delivering scintillating prose, sentence after sentence, without ever seeming to run dry. ... Infinite Jest is not just an exercise in dazzling prose. ... This is one of the most sober (in more than one sense of the word) novels you will ever read, and also one of the funniest. The novel is also loaded with irony, but also one of the most caustic critiques of irony.
Bruce Weber (New York Times, September 15, 2008) stated that Wallace's books are:
prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary ... [Infinite Jest] perceives American society as self-obsessed, pleasure-obsessed and entertainment-obsessed [and is] by turns hallucinogenically stream of consciousness, jubilantly anecdotal, winkingly sardonic and self-consciously literary.
David Gates (his 1996 review is here) (Newsweek, September 14, 2008):
True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we're all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and - that chillingly neutral word - information. ... Wallace's literary project was to get something of that infinity within us out where we could see and hear it. This explains his characteristic footnotes and endnotes, his digressions within digressions and his compulsive, exhausting (but never sufficiently exhaustive) piling on of detail.
Despite my tremendous love for Infinite Jest, I would point anyone curious about Wallace in the direction of his non-fiction. Grab A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - a collection of essays which were written at the same time as Wallace was drafting Infinite Jest and serves as a kind of addendum to the novel in terms of Wallace's commenting even more on the same themes.

Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, by Greg Carlisle (Sideshow Media, 2007)
David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide, by Stephen J. Burn (Continuum, 2012 (2nd Edition))

The Howling Fantods

Posts/Blogs From Previous IJ Reads:
Infinite Detox
Infinite Zombies
Fiction Advocate: "Words Words Words: The Infinite Jest Liveblog"
Infinite Tasks of Philosophy: "Top Posts of Infinite Summer"
Infinite Summer: "How To Read Infinite Jest"

Finally, some wise words of introduction from Dave Laird (Infinite Winter, February 5, 2016):
When you pick up Infinite Jest you’re truly holding a puzzle. One of those highly complex jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces. Maybe the best analogue is that infamous 17×6 ft, 32,000 piece one. Opening to Jest’s first page is akin to lifting the lid off the box, revealing an absolute chaos of displaced shapes and diasporic colors. The box doesn’t even have the image of what the completed puzzle looks like, so you’re up the creek in terms of visual cues for assembly.

And the method for constructing this puzzle will not be traditional. Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another. These will stack up and your sense of despair will swell as you continually fail to see a pattern or any semblance of relational order between them. Prepare to be confused for a while.

This is likely why many people abandon the book within the first couple hundred pages. It has a high barrier to entry, and is constructed in such a way as to weed out uncommitted readers. ...

So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. ...

Once you’re finally done the puzzle and can see the whole picture in its fully assembled glory, there will probably still be areas you’re unsure about, that resemble strange, surrealist art. This is postmodern fiction. But now you know the whole picture, and are fully equipped to start the whole thing over again, appreciating the shape and color of each seemingly random piece from the outset.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Infinite Jest Reading Schedule

Phil has posted the reading schedule for the Poor Yoricks' Summer's group read of Infinite Jest.
Date                 Page
Friday June 24         63
Monday June 27         95
Friday July 1         137
Monday July 4         169
Friday July 8         211
Monday July 11        242
Friday July 15        283
Monday July 18        317
Friday July 22        367
Monday July 25        394
Friday July 29        430
Monday August 1       461
Friday August 5       503
Monday August 8       538
Friday August 12      575
Monday August 15      601
Friday August 19      651
Monday August 22      682
Friday August 26      724
Monday August 29      755
Friday September 2    795
Monday September 5    827
Friday September 9    876
Monday September 12   906
Friday September 16   941
Monday September 19   981
I think this means that everyone will read pages 1-63 by June 24 and discussion will begin then. I'm really not sure, because elsewhere, it is noted that discussion begins June 20. I guess we'll wait and see when the Guides start posting.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Infinite Jest Group Read

My Joseph Rosenberger/Death Merchant Reading Project will be on hold for the summer as I participate in the Poor Yoricks' Summer online read of my favourite book of all time (F.B.O.A.T.!): David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

The PYS IJ reading schedule will be posted June 13 with the discussion to begin June 20.

In the meantime, here is Wallace and Gromit:

Monday, May 30, 2016

Death Merchant #67: Escape From Gulag Taria

Gulag Death

Deep in the frozen wastelands of Siberia, in an impregnable hospital fortress, a would-be defector with a powerful secret is being held prisoner. He is a Soviet physicist whose work in weather control could give the Cold War a whole new twist. The CIA's problem: how to kidnap him from a psychiatric staff of Soviet sadists and KGB killers. The answer: Richard Camellion. Who else in their right mind would lead a ragtag band of fanatic dissidents against the whole of Mother Russia and find a deadly mission the perfect chance to go a little crazy?


In The Silicon Valley Connection (DM #58), Joseph Rosenberger wrote:
Throughout the length and breadth of the USSR, in thousands of camps, in prisons and on trains, was hidden a population larger than that of Canada4, as large as Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, or of Belgium and Austria put together; and in each prison and in each work camp were the KGB sadists, the parilka, or "sweat room," and an utter lack of hope.

4 In Death Merchant number 68, Escape from Gulag Taria—yet to be published—a full explanation of the Soviet slave system will be given—information printed for the first time anywhere.
Rosenberger doesn't deliver on that promise of "a full explanation" of the "slave system", although throughout the first half of the book, several Russians "traitors" working with Camellion continually tell him how awful things are in "this prison of a nation". We hear mostly about the pessimistic character of the typical Russian and his relationship to his repressive government, but we also learn about coarse toilet paper and women who do not shave their legs. (In an odd aside, Rosenberger states that Camellion's extreme, long-standing, and oft-stated prejudice against everything Russian was "based strictly on emotion and had no foundation in fact".)

So the Death Merchant is in southeastern Siberia, on a mission to rescue (or kidnap, in the KGBs mind) Dr. Georgi Ulomov from "Special Psychiatric Hospital UZh-15/5 ITK-14", where he has been imprisoned for speaking out against weather modification. ("The nation that could fully control the weather could control the world.") Much of the story takes place in the area of Yakutsk, located about 450 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.

Camellion is working with several Russians, including an attractive woman named Zoya Beliyev:
Not immune to the charms of even a female pig farmer (or a roll in the hay, even if the hay was in the Soviet Union), the Death Merchant reflected that Zoya did have a nice body. Each breast was a good handful, and while her hips were a trifle too wide, her stomach was firm and flat, her navel so deep it could hide half a tongue. For a Russian woman, she did have slim legs, and shapely, too, not too thick in the calves and thighs. Nor was she unattractive facially either.
Zoya seems to be flirting with Camellion at one point, but nothing happens as the Death Merchant can't get past "those damned hairy legs"! (Actually, Camellion seems completely immune to the charms of females. He's not gay; sex plays almost no part in any of these books. Once in a while, maybe every 10 books, Rosenberger writes that the Death Merchant finds a woman attractive. I think Camellion has had sex maybe two or three times in the entire series.)

Camellion and two others attempt to get Ulomov out of the hospital by posing as three Russian officers with transfer papers. But the KGB (often referred to as the Kah Gay Beh) at the hospital see through their ruse and the three have to shoot their way out. They steal a jeep and escape. They go into hiding at Beliyev's grandmother's house as the KGB searches for the "terrorists" who killed roughly a dozen men at the hospital.

There are several ambushes or skirmishes that pop up every so often. Camellion and a Russian named Kirill Tarkovsky are driving and find the road has been blocked by an accident. They decide to wait in a cafe. The militia comes in and demands to see everyone's papers. The two men have fake papers and they end up having to blast their way to safety, leaving a pile of slug-stabbed bodies behind. Once the road is cleared, they drive on -- and are followed by more KGB agents. And so there is yet another bloody shootout.

Camellion's plan is to attack the hospital, assuming that while the Russians may think he'll attempt another kidnapping, he won't go all out and attack the place. With explosives and many weapons, he sneaks into the hospital grounds and causes much havoc. Camellion forces one guard at gunpoint to lead him to Ulomov and he gets him out of the hospital. While they are driving away with Ulomov, the Death Merchant and his group are set upon by the KGB. Cue the high-velocity projectiles and subsequent gore.

They eventually make their way to the coast where they are supposed to meet some Navy SEALs before swimming out to a waiting submarine. On the beach, they encounter - not Navy SEALs - but "Mad Mike" Quinlan and about thirty of his Thunderbolt Unit Omega mercenaries. Quinlan says his group has been hired by the CIA because they are "expendable". Soon enough, nearly ten armored KGB cars are converging on the beach. Rosenberger is once again at his best in describing the in-close gunfighting and hand-to-hand combat. In the finale to this volume, he gives us about 10 pages of meticulously described action.

Some trademark Rosenberger gore:
Five .45 THV copper projectiles had shot through the engine, turning two of the cylinders into junk. The other sixteen THVs had not increased the longevity of the three members of the militia and the KGB officer. The copper-points had poked through the door and the driver as easily as if the metal and cloth and flesh and bone had been soggy tissue paper. ... Neither man had time to cry out or even think of his mother.
Neither did the two men in the rear, three slugs hitting the man on the left and four striking Paul Raske, who was on the right. When the Death Merchant had triggered the Ingram, Raske had been bending over to pick up an AKR submachine gun. Three of the slugs that ripped through his seatmate bored through Raske's left side. A fourth projectile smacked him in the side of the head with such force that his skull exploded. There was a loud pop that no one heard, and pieces of ripped flesh and bits of bone and bloody brain were suddenly all over the floor, the rear of the front seat, and the right side of the dead dummy to the left. ...

Phyyyt. The first .22-caliber hollow point caught the KGB boob with the flashlight in the mouth and blew out the back of his neck. He dropped the lantern and was falling backward when Camellion fired four more times, the silenced Ruger pistol whispering. The second Russian went down with an exploded heart and a slug that had angled through his right lung and rested against the innerside of the scapula. The third guard took the last fall of his life with slugs that had cut through the thin zygomatic bone of his face and had tickled the pons, the brain stem. He, too, had become as useful as a parachute on an ocean liner. ...

On the left side of the cab, Alexey Perchany was rolling under the rig as slugs from the chattering Ingram chopped into the six troopers and the three KGB agents. Byhairin's head seem to jump six inches from his neck. It had. Three .45 THV slugs had almost decapitated him. He fell with his head held by only a strand of flesh and flopping like a football, bouncing back and forth between his shoulder blades. The blood spurting from the stub of his neck splashed all over Lieutenants Norvorzhev and Josef Perikiriv. Both men were stone dead, their upper chests having been ripped open by the axelike Tres Haute Vitesse projectiles. ...

Mad Mike Quinlan was having a slight problem of his own at the moment, in the form of a big Russian coming at him with an AKR assault rifle with a bayonet attached.
"You stupid son of a bitch!" Mike taunted Branko Voukelich. "I'm going to take that frog sticker away from you and use it to pin your ass to the sand!"
Enraged, Voukelich made a quick thrust at Mike's stomach, and instantly received his Big Shock of the day. Quinlan side-stepped and with lightning speed used the palm of his right hand to parry the thrust, shoving against the side of the barrel and the handle of the bayonet. At the same time he stepped to his right oblique. He was now in a position facing the bayonet, with his groin area protected by his right leg. Before the startled—and now a bit frightened—Voukelich could pull back and try for another thrust, Quinlan grabbed the upper portion of the assault rifle with his left hand and used a right sword-ridge hand to strike the inside of Voukelich's left elbow, the sharp slam causing the Russian trooper to let out a yell of pain and release his left hand from the forward underneath portion of the AKR assault rifle. Quinlan grabbed the AKR with both hands and, as he kicked Voukelich in the left kneecap with his left foot, twisted the assault rifle and its bayonet free. Just as quickly, Quinlan hooked the instep of his left foot in back of Voukelich's left ankle and jerked. Down went Voukelich, flat on his back. A quick reversal of the assault rifle by Mad Mike and an even faster downward thrust. Voukelich screamed a very short wail of agony as the blade of the bayonet cut through his colon and tickled his spine. His body jerked several times. His eyes rolled back and his mouth went slack. He was lucky. He would never suffer from cancer.
A well-hidden secret room at a church:
Only half listening to the conversation, the Death Merchant felt it was ironic that monks of the Russian Orthodox Church—dead for two hundred years—had saved his life. Their ingenuity in constructing the secret rooms beneath the Church of Our Savior deserved gold stars. A stone trapdoor in the floor behind the high altar could be opened by releasing a tiny catch concealed in one of the confessionals. Beneath the trapdoor was a square shaft, then down twenty-nine feet on a ladder to a low, narrow passage that stretched for sixty feet to the north. Twenty-three feet to the north was another trapdoor concealed in the floor; beneath it was the first occultated room. A cleverly hidden door in its south wall opened to another room. At the end of the sixty-foot passage was a door concealed in the stones of the north wall. The outer stones of the door were so finely cut that, when the door was closed, the edge of a razorblade couldn't be inserted. Beyond the door was a large crypt, behind its west wall a smaller catacomb containing the sealed sepulcher of four monks. In the north wall was still another hidden door, beyond it another vault filled with broken stones. The Soviet government knew about these five rooms. The KGB knew. What the KGB didn't know was that Yuri Gagarin had discovered two more tomblike rooms. In the floor of the rubble-filled chamber was a trapdoor that opened to a shaft. Ten feet below and at the end of the shaft was a large chamber. Beyond the south wall of this chamber was the last and final space. It was to this room that Gagarin brought the Death Merchant and Kirill Tarkovsky.
Camellion muses on some End of the World nonsense:
As silent as a shadow, the Death Merchant moved out and headed toward the east wall. There wasn't any need to linger. Either the guards in the towers would see him or they wouldn't. ... He moved south rapidly, thinking that success or failure really didn't matter. Both, like life and living, were illusory, as vaporous as Man's search for peace. In only a short time—on the scale of history, ten years is far less than a second—the world would be plunged into the darkness of death and destruction, of blood and violence and barbarism. The living would envy the dead, and the long night of horror would begin.
And the obligatory weapons porn:
A Slingshot APILAS—Armor-Piercing, Infantry, Light Arm System—was bulky and ungainly looking. The main body was a fifty-two-inch one-piece launch tube into which could be thrust a 108 mm missile with a shaped HE charge. The rocket engine of the missile was very fast burning and pushed the warhead along at better than 1,200 feet per second, to give a very short time of flight to its effective range of 300 yards. The warhead was so powerful it could dig right through 700 mm of armor or six feet of reinforced concrete. ...

Vito Rinletti turned and looked at Mike Quinlan, who was putting a cylinder into a CAWS (Close Assault Weapons System) Pancor Mk-3 Jackhammer shotgun, a weapon that looked like something out of the twenty-first century. For one thing, the magazine was a detachable cylinder that held ten rounds of twelve-gauge ammo. For another, the cylinder and all the shotgun's major subassemblies were injection-molded from a new high-strength synthetic material called Rynite SST. ...

Camellion aimed for the head, wanting instant kill-shots, his logic based on the fact that for most pistol calibers the maximum velocity of the bullet never exceeds 1,200 feet per second. At speeds between 400 and 1,200 fps, the bullet has a tendency to bore a hole through the body, creating a channel wound, with damage confined to the channel. At velocities over 1,200 fps, the bullet carries enough energy so that a more severe wound can result, but as a rule the bullet only passes through the body. It is only after the bullet has been accelerated above 2,400 fps that the high-velocity explosive wound comes into being, unless you're using special ammo—Arcane, THV, and so on. At the moment Camellion was using .45 caliber cartridges, and a .45 ACP projectile carries only enough energy to knock a man backward at a rate of about two inches per second. For this reason the Death Merchant wanted to be positive that the targets didn't have even a minimoment in which to fire—not even as they were going down.
They didn't. The .45 bullet from Camellion's left Gonez smacked the Russian with the assault rifle in the bridge of the nose. The slug zipped through the lower portion of his brain and blew out the back of his head. No human being could have died faster.

"Richard Camellion was as calm as a clam in a coma."

"Turkey turds ... Hopefully, they had an IQ higher than an onion!"

"A thousand feet ahead, the road turned rather sharply and moved past a thickly wooded area, the trees appearing to be almost to the edge of the concrete. Russians, pig farmers that they were, loved woods."

"Homo sovieticus is a special breed of moral coward."

"Get on that phone, spinach face."

"The Russians have as much chance against that sub as a jungle bunny in Harlem has of learning calculus!"

Camellion has "an absolute horror of urinating in front of a member of the opposite sex, even with his back turned. Better to face an entire division of KGB trash."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Another Infinite Jest Reading Group: Poor Yoricks' Summer

In June 2009, Matthew Baldwin organized "Infinite Summer", an online group reading of Infinite Jest, the acclaimed novel by the late David Foster Wallace. I did not take part in IS, but the project inspired me a few months later to gather some of the Joy of Sox crowd and try an off-season read of the book. I called it "Infinite Winter" - and it (sadly) fizzled out at about page 400 (of 1,078). (A different and much more successful online reading experience entitled Infinite Winter wrapped up about one month ago.)

Now Philip Miletic, as part of his dissertation at the University of Waterloo, is organizing "Poor Yoricks' Summer", yet another online reading of Infinite Jest.
[Y]ou are all invited to join Poor Yoricks' Summer, an Infinite Jest reading group that is led by Canadians, from the West coast to the East coast (you will meet the guides in the first week of June). First time readers are more than welcome, as are second and third and fourth (and so on) time readers. ... This is not only a time to read a really big book together; it's also a time to share with others your thoughts and feelings about one of those really big books you like or have been hearing so much about. ...

You can use the hashtag #infsum (I prefer to continue the excellent conversations on #infsum rather than trying to jumpstart a new one). And we're over at twitter at @poor_summer.
Led by Canadians! How can I resist?

Miletic's reading schedule will be modelled on Infinite Winter, which covered approximately 75 pages per week. That is really a breakneck speed for this detailed novel, but I understand the need to move things along. You can't have the experience last a year or more and expect people to stick with it. Like the hosts of the previous reads, Miletic will have a group of "guides" posting their thoughts and observations.

I may also post stuff here.